Bootstraps, Baptismal Waters and Being Made Well
After this, there was a festival of the Jews and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now in Jerusalem, there is a pool by the Sheep Gate that is called, in Hebrew, Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids – blind, lame and paralyzed. One man who was there had been ill for 38 years. When Jesus saw that he was ill and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you wish to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to lower me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and when I try to make my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take up your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, he took up his mat and he began to walk. Now that day was a Sabbath.
I had a new, less-than-charitable thought about Jesus when I read this Gospel this time around. Let me explain.
There’s this gaggle of sick, hurting, broken people gathered around these healing pools near the gate by the Temple entrance in Jerusalem. And they are literally waiting for a miracle. See, the lore, legend and tradition about those pools and porticoes suggested – that an angel of God was what stirred up the waters from time to time – and that to be healed by their mysterious power you had to be among the first into the mix once that happened. So there’s this guy who, for 38 years has been ill, unable to walk on his own, and who has been trying for who knows how many of those years to reach the water at just the right time to be relieved of his disease.
And when Jesus sees him there he asks him, “Do you want to be made well?” Maybe Jesus was just being polite. Maybe he was giving him some ownership over what was going to happen next. Maybe he didn’t want to be presumptuous. But what a strange, silly, cynical question, really. “Do you want to be made well?”
Surely this guy wasn’t happy being sick and unable to walk. Surely he wasn’t just enjoying the show – watching all those other sick people receive their miracle. Surely he was there because he wanted to be healed right along with the rest of them.
So I heard Jesus’ question this time around as a little insensitive… a little judgmental… a little presumptuous in all the wrong ways. And I saw myself asking that question, too.
“Do you want to be made well?” I think I ask that question in all the wrong ways myself a lot of the time. Maybe you do to.
When someone is struggling in some way, don’t we assume they would, could, should just pull themselves up by their boot straps and make things right? Don’t we assume, too often, that a person who’s homeless must have done something – or not done enough – to end up in that predicament? When someone’s in prison, don’t we assume they’re guilty or less than or that they chose and deserve the fate that’s befallen them? When someone’s addicted don’t we think they just need to make better choices? Gain some will power? Pray more or harder or better?
That’s the kind of thing I heard in Jesus’ question this time around…to the sick man lying helpless by the pool. “Do you want to be made well?”
And I feel that sick man – broken and hurting and desperate to find help wherever he can get it – trying not to roll his eyes and write off this jerk who seems just like all the rest of them. And I hear that sick man respond with as much respect as he can muster, because he’s just that desperate, as he explains himself saying something like, “Sir, I’m not well enough or fast enough or lucky enough to get into that water when it moves and no one around here will help me. All these people are just looking out for themselves… or they aren’t as sick as me… or they have someone else to help them. Of course I want to be made well. I just can’t do this on my own.”
And I wonder if this might be one of those moments in Scripture – and there are others – where Jesus learns a new thing and changes his tune; where he hears this man, fully; where he sees this man in all of his brokenness and suffering and desperate need in a way he hadn’t at first. Jesus was as human as the rest of, remember. And you and I do this all the time.
We forget or deny that bad things happen to good people – that the sun rises on the evil and on the good, and that rain falls on the righteous and on the unrighteous, just the same – as Scripture tells us. And I think we forget or deny or ignore the injustice around us in an attempt to make sense of things that don’t make sense; to justify what cannot be justified; to pretend we have more control over or power over or influence over our lives than is possible or true a lot of the time. And I think we project that kind of judgement onto others because it’s a great way to justify our lack of help; our lack of compassion; our self-righteousness; our “thoughts and prayers” as a suitable measure of response to the suffering around us, when we know there’s more to be done – and more we could do.
We forget or deny that people are arrested and convicted and sentenced to prison unfairly and for crimes they never committed – and it happens to people of color at significantly higher rates than it does to people who look like me. (“Do you want to be made well? Do you want to be better? Do you want to do better?” “Yes, but the system is stacked against me,” they might say, “and I have no one to help me into the water.”)
We forget or deny that poverty is inherited – and it’s a cycle – for so many people who didn’t do anything to “deserve” their misfortune any more than I – and most of us here – have done as much as we pretend to earn or maintain the good fortune or status or the middle-class starting block from which we began our life’s journey. (“Do you want to be made well? Do you want to be better? Do you want to do better?” “Yes, but these people keep stepping ahead of me before I can get where I’m trying to go.”)
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about hard work and bootstraps. But I’m also very clear about the grace and good fortune I’ve enjoyed in my life. And today I want to learn from Jesus about what it means to break the rules and buck the system for the sake of that kind of grace in a world that doesn’t always play by the same rules everybody.
See, so much of this Gospel’s point is found in those last six words. “Now that day was a Sabbath.” It matters that that day was a Sabbath day, because work wasn’t to be done on the Sabbath – the high, holy day of rest for God’s Chosen Ones. The Sabbath was for worship, rest, reverence and nothing more. Carrying anything – like a mat, for instance – was against the rules. So it’s no small thing that Jesus tells the sick man to pick up his man. And, healing in an emergency was allowed on the Sabbath, but curing a chronic disease that could be cured before or after a Sabbath was a no-no.
So Jesus shows up in just the right place – Jerusalem, at the healing pools by the Sheep Gate; at just the right time – during the Jewish festival and on the Sabbath, and he ignores the law, he breaks the rules, he heals this man who had been sick for 38 years – crippled, ignored, overlooked and stepped over.
And I think that’s our challenge and invitation, too, as believers and followers of Christ in the world these days. To choose, to work for, and to extend grace as often as we can. To acknowledge the brokenness around us and the blessings we enjoy and to do something about the disparity between the two. To not be played for fools – but to stop pretending that others would choose or deserve their misfortune any more than we deserve the abundance we enjoy.
And when I think about Maddy Brown, who will confirm her faith this morning, I think about the waters of baptism she shares with the rest of us and about how those waters are meant to stir us up – and to be stirred up – not by some mysterious, miraculous angel like the water in those pools and porticoes back in the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day; but stirred up like the waters of baptism that bring the promise of healing and hope, grace and goodness for all people.
These waters are meant to be stirred up, even if that means breaking some rules to do it; stirred up, by the likes of the baptized; stirred up, by you and me; stirred up, for the sake of those who can’t… stirred up in the name of Jesus who can, and who does…at all costs, for the sake of the world.